What Time Is It There?

What Time Is It There? ★★★★½


Another enchanting slow cinema work by the one and only Tsai Ming-Liang. It never fails to amaze me, how he repurposes quotidian objects/spaces into bizarre and unorthodox contexts, be it plastic bags and discarded water bottles, to rattan baskets and, of course, clocks. Few moments from this film also seem to echo some of his earlier works. The interiors found in Hsiao Lang’s house loosely resembles the same domestic space in Rebels of the Neon God, while the cinema scene mirrored the same empty-but-not-empty movie theatre in Goodbye Dragon Inn.

This might easily be my second favourite Tsai Ming-Liang film, just following behind Stray Dogs. Displacement and disillusionment comes in all forms. We see one character consuned by loneliness after travelling in a foreign country, while another character attempts to heal their grief through spiritual practice turned superstition. Then there is Hsiao Kang, on a quest to change every clock into Paris time — perhaps to compensate for bad omens after selling his watch to a customer during the mourning of his late father. The emotions remain restrained, yet Tsai Ming-Liang reserves the most strongest emotions when appropriate, resulting in a cathartic, affective payoff that can leave us feeling tense, or even uncomfortable.

Also, as someone who’s watched the Antoine Doinel saga this year, it’s imperative to comment on Jean-Pierre Leaud’s cameo. Even in his brief minute on-screen, he still manages to stifle a smile out of me. Outside the obvious connection to The 400 Blows, there’s something oddly meta about this scene, the way he gestures and smiles at the young Taiwanese woman at the cemetery. It’s as if he’s channeled his inner Antoine Doinel in this moment alone, mirroring the same cheeky, flirtatious traits we’ve seen in Stolen Kisses or Bed and Board. Seriously bless that man — next to Juliette Binoche, he is a true French cinema icon.

I know a part of me will continue to contemplate on the many ideas that Tsai Ming-Liang poses to us in this film, especially in this particular time of the year for me. This may perhaps be his most enigmatic work yet — and perhaps my rating may change as a result. A recommendable watch for those who are patient enough to sit through scenes of scarce actions, looking for more cerebral works to watch. I hope to find more Tsai Ming-Liang gems very soon — easily one of my fave directors in Asia’s Southeast.

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